Protests in POK Telltale signs of growing unrest over systematic plundering of resources by Pakistan India vs Disinformation 23 May 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Protests in POK: Telltale signs of growing unrest over systematic plundering of resources by Pakistan India vs Disinformation 23 May 2024

Jammu and Kashmir (J and K) has come a long way since the Pak sponsored militancy of the 90’s and the early 2000’s. Voting in Baramulla and Srinagar in the 2019 elections was as low as 34% and 14%. These were 39% and 26% in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Similar was the state in Anantnag. Who can forget the Gogoi incident in the Srinagar Lok Sabha by-polls of 09 Apr 2017. Maj Gogoi tied a protestor to his jeep to rescue polling staff, who were surrounded by stone pelters, thereby avoiding opening fire which could have resulted in multiple deaths, leading to global criticism.

Compare that to the present. Srinagar witnessed a polling of 38% while Baramulla recorded 59%, both of which were the highest in two decades. Anantnag has yet to vote. Stone pelting was missing, as was intimidation. The Chief Election Commissioner, satisfied with the high turnout and peaceful conduct of polls in the valley mentioned ‘The highly successful conduct of polls with impressive turnout in Srinagar and Baramulla gives the Election Commission the confidence to hold Assembly polls in J&K at the earliest.’

J and K has witnessed development, creation of educational institutes and hospitals. Stone throwing has become history since Hawala funding to the Hurriyat was stopped and the organization made redundant. As per J and K tourism, the inflow of tourists into the state touched a record 2 crores in 2023 of which over 30 lakhs visited Kashmir. The flow continues. Encounters in the valley are few, while instances of random killing to display terrorism is ongoing, occasionally happen.

On the other hand, across the LOC (Line of Control), POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) has been witnessing riots, strikes, hartals and suppression by the Pakistani army, which controls the region with an iron fist. The so-called ‘Azad’ status of POK is nothing but an eyewash, as the region is tightly controlled by Rawalpindi.

Pakistan may mention that J and K has a high presence of the Indian army but the reality is that POK is a suppressed state whose residents have no voice. Anger had been building up within the region against the oppressors which ultimately blew up. 

Riots which commenced on 14 May in POK were triggered by high electricity tariffs, increase in flour prices and special privileges provided to the elite. Initially protests were peaceful, but Rawalpindi, desperate to hide reality from the globe arrested 70 leaders and moved in security forces to suppress them. This led to violence. Riots left four dead (including a policeman) and over a hundred injured. In an added embarrassment, these came at a time when the IMF (International Monetary Fund) team was visiting Islamabad to negotiate a fresh loan. 

The protestors had rightly been demanding cheaper electricity as it was generated in their province. The cost of wheat had risen to levels where procuring it was beyond the means of the common citizen. Suspension of trade with India post abrogation of article 370 had further impacted the locals cutting of a major source of revenue.

Protests were spearheaded by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC). The arrest of their leaders triggered anger amongst the populace, resulting in violence. In panic, Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, released Rs 23 billion as a special package for the region. He even made a day long visit to POK’s capital Muzaffarabad and attempted to assuage the public. He did succeed in cooling tempers.

The Indian government reacted to the protests, after all India considers POK as a part of Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan. The foreign office spokesperson, Randhir Jaiswal, mentioned, ‘We have seen reports on protests in several areas of Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. We believe that it is a natural consequence of Pakistan’s continued policy of systemic plundering of resources from these territories which remain under its forcible and illegal occupation.’ Indian flags were seen in some areas during the protests while the Pak flag was forcibly torn down.   

The residents of POK are aware of vast differences on both sides of the LOC. While J and K flourishes, POK sinks. While J and K witnesses’ development, POK is ignored and its residents treated as second class citizens. While the Indian army provides security in Kashmir, the Pak deep state pushes terrorists and their training camps into the region, increasing insecurity. Added is grabbing of local lands by the Pak army. There is also an ongoing rumour that part of the region is being gifted to China as Pak lacks funds to repay loans.

Thus, anger had been steadily rising, it needed a trigger. This was provided by the brutal crackdown by Pak security forces on peaceful demonstrations. With Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan already on the boil, Pakistan cannot risk an added problem in POK. Thus, Islamabad was compelled to back down, immediately release funds and work towards cooling down tempers.

Pak may have suppressed the media from reporting true casualties and damage, but within Pak, it was an indicator of what could flow. Imran Khan from jail mentioned, ‘The chaos that is seen in POK today is likely to spread across Pakistan as similar price rise and inflation is hurting the masses.’

While calls during protests this time were for ‘azadi,’ it would not be long before this changes to becoming a part of developing India. POK activist, Amjad Ayub Mirza, sought intervention by India. He mentioned, ‘The situation is getting worse by the day. India must act.’ Pak had hoped to comment negatively on Indian conducted elections in J and K. However, with protests in POK, they were on the backfoot, sitting silently, aware that they are in the dock.

Pakistan fails to comprehend that it may have gained temporary peace by quick release of funds. However, anger has not subsided. They forget that a single incident, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s in protest of police corruption and ill treatment in Tunisia, triggered the Arab Spring, which swept through the region. POK is awaiting a similar incident, which may not be far.

An insurgency cycle commences with peaceful protests leading to violence and ending in an uprising. In case Islamabad has made empty promises, an Arab Spring type event can result in a full-blown revolt. In such a case, it would be pay-back time for India. It may well be the catalyst which could break Pakistan and reunite the region with India.     

The Chinese are equally concerned as the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) passes through the region. A revolt and calls for independence or joining India will render their entire project valueless. For Islamabad, increased protests will witness Chinese investment reduction, pouring water on their plans for development. 

Protests may have concluded but peace is unlikely to prevail for long. The protestors are aware that they have the power to compel Islamabad to bend, possibly the only Pak province to have done so in recent years. In a few weeks, another incident could incite a fresh wave. India just needs to wait and watch and where possible support those protesting, after all the region is India’s.